Missiles set ship ablaze off Yemen as Houthis officially ban Israeli maritime traffic

Yemen rebel group’s ‘Humanitarian Operations Coordination Center’ notifies shippers that vessels linked to US and UK also not allowed to use Red Sea or Gulf of Aden

In this photo provided by the Indian Navy on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024, a view of the oil tanker Marlin Luanda on fire after an attack, in the Gulf of Aden. (Indian Navy via AP)
Illustrative: In this photo provided by the Indian Navy on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024, a view of the oil tanker Marlin Luanda on fire after an attack, in the Gulf of Aden. (Indian Navy via AP)

A suspected missile attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels set a ship ablaze in the Gulf of Aden on Thursday, as the Iran-backed rebel group announced a formal ban on Israel-linked vessel traversing key shipping lanes off Yemen’s coast.

Two missiles were fired at the Gulf of Aden, setting an unnamed ship ablaze, the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations center said, the latest in a series of escalating attacks meant to show support for Hamas’s war against Israel in Gaza.

Ship-tracking data analyzed by The Associated Press identified the vessel as a Palau-flagged cargo ship named Islander.

It had been coming from Thailand bound for Egypt and previously sent out messages saying “SYRIAN CREW ON BOARD” to potentially avoid being targeted by the Houthis.

“The missile attack led to a fire onboard and coalition military assets were responding to the incident,” the private security firm Ambrey said.

“Merchant shipping is advised to stay clear of the vessel and proceed with caution,” it added.

The ship’s Liberian-listed owners could not be immediately reached for comment.

There was no immediate claim for the attack but it follows a series of strikes on commercial vessels by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

This is a locator map for Yemen with its capital, Sanaa. (AP Photo)

The strikes have prompted some shipping companies to detour around southern Africa to avoid the Red Sea, which normally carries about 12 percent of global maritime trade.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development warned late last month that the volume of commercial traffic passing through the Suez Canal had fallen more than 40% in the previous two months.

An agency controlled by Yemen’s Houthi group has sent messages banning ships  wholly or partially owned by Israeli individuals or entities and Israel-flagged vessels are banned from the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea, according to statements from seen by Reuters on Thursday.

The statements, sent to shipping insurers and firms from the Houthi’s Humanitarian Operations Coordination Center, also said ships owned by US or British individuals or entities, or sailing under their flags, were also banned.

The Houthis’ communication, the first to the shipping industry outlining a formalized ban, came in the form of two notices from the Houthis’ newly dubbed Humanitarian Operations Coordination Center sent to shipping insurers and firms.

“The Humanitarian Operations Center was established in Sanaa to coordinate the safe and peaceful passage of ships and vessels that have no connection to Israel,” a senior Houthi official told Reuters on Thursday.

Since November, the rebels have repeatedly targeted ships in the Red Sea and surrounding waters over Israel’s war against Hamas. They have frequently targeted vessels with tenuous or no clear links to Israel, imperiling shipping in a key route for trade among Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Those vessels have included at least one with cargo for Iran, the Houthis’ main benefactor.

Yemenis brandishing weapons chant slogans and wave Palestinian flags as they march in the Houthi-run capital Sanaa on February 16, 2024 (MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)

The attacks have already sent shipping insurance premiums rocketing, and the Houthi agency’s newly formalized remit could further affect prices.

“If anything, Houthis attacks on cargo ships are intensifying in the Red Sea and around the Gulf of Aden,” Tamas Varga of oil broker PVM wrote in a note on Tuesday.

In January, US and British forces began retaliatory strikes on Houthi facilities, though the group’s attacks show little sign of abating. A US-led international coalition meant to protect the shipping lanes has also failed to stymie the attacks. The EU said this week it would also start protecting ships in the Red Sea.

Despite a month of US-led airstrikes, Houthi rebels remain capable of launching significant attacks. This week, they seriously damaged a ship in a crucial strait and downed an American drone worth tens of millions of dollars. The Houthis insist their attacks will continue until Israel stops its combat operations in the Gaza Strip, which have enraged the wider Arab world and seen the Houthis gain international recognition.

Israel’s war against Palestinian terror group Hamas began on October 7 when thousands of Hamas terrorists invaded Israel’s south, killing some 1,200 people and taking 253 hostages.

On Wednesday, ships in the Red Sea off the Houthi-held port city of Hodeida in Yemen reported seeing an explosion, though all vessels in the area were said to be safe, the UKTMO said. The UKMTO earlier reported heavy drone activity in the area.

The US military’s Central Command acknowledged shooting down a Houthi bomb-carrying drone during that time. US airstrikes separately targeted seven mobile anti-ship cruise missiles and one mobile anti-ship ballistic missile prepared to target ships in the Red Sea, Central Command said.

In this photo released by the US military’s Central Command on February 3, 2024, US Central Command forces stand next to a fighter jet on the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier as strikes are carried out against Houthi targets in Yemen. (US Central Command/AFP)

The US State Department criticized “the reckless and indiscriminate attacks on civilian cargo ships by the Houthis” that have delayed humanitarian aid including food and medicine bound for Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen. That includes the Sea Champion, a ship carrying corn and other aid to both Aden and Hodeida.

“Contrary to what the Houthis may attempt to claim, their attacks do nothing to help the Palestinians,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement. “Their actions are not bringing a single morsel of assistance or food to the Palestinian people.”

Meanwhile, sirens sounded early Thursday morning over Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, followed by videos posted online of what appeared to be an interception in the sky overhead.

The Israeli military later said the interception was carried out by its Arrow missile defense system.

Israel did not identify what the fire was, nor where it came from. However, the Arrow system intercepts long-range ballistic missiles with a warhead designed to destroy targets while they are in space.

The Houthis did not immediately claim either attack. They typically acknowledge assaults they conduct hours afterward.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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